BEIRUT (AP) — Clashes erupted on Tuesday between unknown gunmen and followers of a radical Sunni cleric in south Lebanon, security officials said, the latest apparent outbreak of violence between Lebanese factions supporting opposing sides in the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Automatic rifles and rocket propelled grenades were being used in the fighting in an eastern suburb of the port city of Sidon, security officials said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Lebanon has been on the edge for months. The country's Sunni Muslims largely support their brethren in Syria, who make up the majority of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad's regime. Many Shiites support Assad because his regime is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
Tensions rose this month when Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah group openly joined the fight in Syria on the side of Assad, helping his troops crush rebels in a town just over the border in Syria earlier this month.
The hardline Sunni cleric whose followers were fighting in Sidon, Sheik Ahmad al-Assir, is a critic of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and has threatened to clear apartments occupied by Hezbollah supporters in the mostly Sunni city. Officials believed the gunmen fighting al-Assir's followers to be Hezbollah sympathizers.
Tensions have been building in Sidon since Monday, when followers of al-Assir said a soldier verbally harassed one of them as he went to a local mosque to pray.
Around noon Tuesday several people attacked the car of Amjad al-Assir, the brother of the hardline cleric, throwing stones at his car and breaking its glass, the officials said. A statement from al-Assir's office said he was not driving it at the time.
The clashes broke out afterward.
Lebanese army troops deployed in the area of the fighting, the officials said. They spoke anonymously in line with regulations.
Earlier Tuesday, Lebanon's official news agency said unknown gunmen shot and wounded a Syrian man, whom it said was believed to have been involved in a deadly attack on four Shiite youth in Ras Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold located in a volatile area near the border with Syria.
The National News Agency did not elaborate on the suspected connection between the attack on the Syrian in the town of Labwa and the killing of four Shiites in a Sunday ambush nearby.
The Syrian uprising began more than two years ago with peaceful protests against Assad, but later grew into a civil war that has killed 93,000 people and probably many more, according to the U.N.
Millions of Syrian fled their homes and sought shelter in neighboring countries with Jordan and Lebanon hosting the bulk of them, further fueling fears that Syrian conflict's sporadic spill overs across the border into the Arab country of four million people will turn into a full blown war.
Lebanon is still recovering from its own 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
In Syria meanwhile, warplanes bombed rebel positions near a contested military air base in the north on Tuesday, activists said, while Assad's forces nearby pressed ahead with an offensive against opposition fighters in the country's largest city Aleppo.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that fighter jets struck near the Kweiras air base near the Turkish border. Opposition forces fighting to oust Assad's regime for more than two years have been trying for months to take Kweiras and two other military air bases nearby.
Assad's regime has relied heavily in the past year on its air force to neutralize the opposition's territorial gains. In the last year, rebels have been able to capture much of the area near the Turkish border, several districts in Aleppo, the whole city of Raqqa and even dams on the River Euphrates. But they have had difficulty running these areas effectively because of the threat of attack from the air.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of informants inside Syria, also reported heavy clashes in Aleppo, the country's commercial hub.
There were no reports of casualties in either the strikes or the fighting.
The regime announced June 10 that it has launched an offensive in the north with the aim of ousting rebels from Aleppo neighborhoods that the opposition captured last summer.
Assad's army hopes to maintain the momentum from its victory in the town of Qusair, in central Syria, which the regime captured earlier this month largely with the Hezbollah.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.